The Global War on Women

Thursday, February 2nd, 2006 · 14 Comments »

Keeping an eye out for the enemy in front and the enemy in back.
(Note: It’s been pointed out to me that there is a certain amount of skepticism about the reported dehydration deaths of female soldiers. Fair enough. But the theme of this post is the plight of women in warfare, and the dehydration deaths are just a launch pad into that meditation. Whatever the case turns out to be with these particular deaths, it is an undisputed fact that our women soliders are raped and abused by their own comrades in arms. )

Several female soldiers in Iraq are said to have died from dehydration because they refused to drink liquids late in the day. The risk of being raped by their own male comrades if they had to venture out to the latrine after dark was so great that they did everything they could to keep their bladders empty. And so they died in their sleep, parched to death in the desert heat.

The military, of course, covered it up. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former senior US military commander in Iraq, is reported to have said, “The women asked to be here, so now let them take what comes with the territory.” The only attempt to cope with the rape problem was to establish a 1-800 hotline – except that most soldiers didn’t have access to a telephone. If they did manage to make the call, they got a recording telling them to leave a message. Some hotline.

As disturbing as this is, it’s not surprising if you’re acquainted with the misogynistic, pro-rape atmosphere in the U.S. military:

  • Over 30 percent of recent women veterans report rape or attempted rape by other military personnel.
  • Over 80 percent of recent women veterans report being sexually harassed by other military personnel.
  • The military routinely covers up rape/abuse cases and prevents them from being prosecuted. In one checklist used by the military to determine if rape reports are valid, a demand for medical treatment is listed as an indication that the woman is lying.
  • In 1997, more military veterans were in jail for sexual assault than for any other offense.
  • Military personnel are more likely to engage in domestic violence than men in any other occupation.
  • Wife-killings on Army bases are at an all-time high, and domestic violence is escalating as soldiers return from Iraq.

Of course, the bigger point to be made here is that war exerts a profound and particular violence on women. Civilian females raped by maruading troops, female soldiers raped by their own comrades, military wives at home killed by their returning husbands — war and militarism hit women hard. This runs contrary to conventional wisdom, which holds that war is the special burden of men, the great sacrifice that males give for their country. Anti-feminists make a sort of fetish of this, claiming that war casualties are overwhelmingly male. That is, to put it politely, bullshit.

Despite the glorification of “our brave boys in uniform,” soldiers are not the main casualties of war. Civilian populations are. In the 20th century, 90 percent of all war deaths were unarmed women, children, and men.

I put that statement in bold because I think it needs to become a permanent fixture of everyone’s mental furniture. When we think about war, we need to think about its real effects. Forget John Wayne and Rambo; remember, instead, the citizens of Dresden, the women of Bosnia, the ash heaps/former humans of Hiroshima. Let’s say it one more time: soldiers are not the main casualties of war. Innocent civilians are.

And of those innocent civilians, women are bombed and maimed as often as men. In addition, women are at special risk of sexual violence. That same dynamic is playing out in Iraq right now. Iraqi women and girls are being blown to bits every day, their deaths reported only (if at all) as “collateral damage.” Those who aren’t killed are at elevated risk of sexual abuse. Violence against women showed huge rises right after the invasion. Sexual brutalization of Iraqi females is ongoing by both American occupiers and Iraqi men. Trafficking of Iraqi girls and women is epidemic. Contraception and safe abortions are almost unobtainable, so in addition to being raped and forced into sexual slavery, women are now dying from back-alley abortions. Basically, women are subject to all the hazards of men in wartime, plus the added risks of sexual violence and abuse.

Unfortunately, what’s true for female civilians in the war zone is also true for female soldiers. In addition to fending off the attacks of the enemy, they have to fend off the attacks of their own fellow soldiers. The conservatives’ response to this is much like Lt. General Sanchez’s: obviously women have no business being in the military. Of course, these are the same people who think it was outrageous to criticize “our boys” for staking Vietnamese women to the ground and gang-raping them, and who strongly back our military’s current propensity for anal object rape of detainees. The key thing for these types is to Support Our Troops, no matter what. But not all our troops! Just the ones with penises. The non-penis-equipped troops can just (literally) dry up and die.


To end this depressing little meditation on a personal note: I recall a conversation with my father many years ago about women in combat. Clinton had just proposed allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and we were discussing the issue at a family gathering. My father is a Vietnam veteran and a 30-year career military man. He was horrified by the idea of gays in uniform; his stated reason was that it was a cynical ploy to use the military to effect social change. But the conversation quickly moved to his disdain for having women in the armed forces. They just caused problems, he said. Men couldn’t concentrate and do their jobs with all that “pussy” running around. Women were just a liability and a distraction. And, he said, it would be the same thing with gays: they would be a distraction and an irritant to the “normal” men. To which the rest of us in the family replied – almost in unison – that it sounded like the problem was with the “normal” men. If they were so infantile or undisciplined or degenerate that they couldn’t do their jobs when faced with a female or non-straight male, then throw them out of the service. Let’s have an army made up of people who can perform their duties regardless – all women and all gay men, if necessary. That’s it! An army of women and gays!

Dad got so angry he had to leave the room. We’ve never discussed it since.

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14 Responses to “The Global War on Women”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    On Majikthise’s comment thread about this issue, people explain why this is probably a hoax – in particular, the whistleblower has made outrageous, untrue statements of similar nature in the past, and combat-trained soldiers can easily pee in buckets when they can’t go to the latrine for fear of enemy fire.

  2. Violet Socks says:

    I’m unconvinced that this was a hoax. But even if these particular deaths did not occur as Karpinski claims, the problem of our female soldiers being raped by their own comrades is well-known. That’s the point.

    And then there’s all that other stuff in the post…

  3. delunch says:

    When I was in Thailand a number of years ago there was a horrible story about a navy(US) guy and navy girl(US)I belive it was-on the beach in Phuket. He head butted her unconscious so that he broke her nose and was raping her. Onlookers had a hard time trying to help her because he was so vicious and threatened them as well. She did want to make a fuss and press charges –the story said.

  4. Violet Socks says:

    One of the things I debated about putting in the post was the extent to which violence is eroticized in the military. Growing up a military brat, I know first-hand that it’s an ugly atmosphere that is extremely demeaning to women. I could have written more about that, but decided to just let the statistics speak for themselves. But yes — rapes, beatings, humiliations, harassment. I’m always amazed by people who worship the troops and imagine that Our Boys are angel-faced cherubs. Jesus Christ.

  5. ae says:

    Many have argued that militarism and sexism are two sides of the same coin. Militarism is predicated on dominance/submission just as patriarchy is. One feeds from the other, so violence done unto (the subordinate) gender in the context of war shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone (since so much violence is done unto women outside the context of war).

    Soldiers suffer great psychic harm, of course, having to dehumanize their “targets” (and themselves), but is there a difference between killing an “enemy” and raping a comrade? Will these soldiers end up in counseling for assaulting their fellow troop members just as they might if they engaged in senseless killing of strangers? Why do we value some human lives more than others?

  6. Alon Levy says:

    I’m unconvinced that this was a hoax. But even if these particular deaths did not occur as Karpinski claims, the problem of our female soldiers being raped by their own comrades is well-known. That’s the point.

    I know, and I don’t disagree with your general point. It’s just that focusing on what dramatized, probably false case is counterproductive.

  7. delunch says:

    You are right about eroticizing violence of course. It is just that, it seems to me that many events are reported in a way that disconnects them from the facts– which sometimes lessens the impact of what is really took place. For example I’ll bet the incident I heard reported in the Thailand news would be reported much differently else where. What would the incident be described as? Perhaps an “assault”. Or some people would describe it as a misunderstanding between the couple. It reveals how much rape and violence are connected although when it comes to responsibility for them that link is taken away and the violence part of rape is not directly evident behind such words as “assault”or did not understand no. I guess my point is, in the entertainment industry certainly the link between violence and rape is made and celebrated-gratuitously—but funny in society generally there is tendency to unlink the actual violence of such incidence when describing rape generally, and that is often down to the words used to describe what an event is(IMO). For example the National justice survey on violence -does it say something about the large amount of injuries caused by sexual assault in marriage?—Some of the worse injuries in fact if I remember correctly?And yet rape in marriage is still depicted as a simple– the guy did not listen when she said she had a headache. So it is toss up between contributing to some people’s titillation and getting the point across. But sorry for getting off your subject and sorry for rambling on–I must need my lunch!

  8. Violet Socks says:

    Speaking of how things are reported, I’ll tell you why I am not automatically skeptical of the dehydration story:

    1. I’ve suffered chronic dehydration — to the point of my blood pressure dropping to 70/30 –and the thing was, I didn’t realize I was dehydrated. I wasn’t thirsty. I thought I was fine. Then the next thing I knew, I was passing out. I had to go to the doctor and be diagnosed with dehydration before I realized my problem.
    2. Nobody said these women were combat-hardened foxhole types. A lot of the women over there are company clerks, supply sergeants, that sort of thing.
    3. Choosing to avoid going to the bathroom rather than peeing in a bucket sounds to me like something women would do — normal women like me, I guess, not combat-types. I knew a woman who was the only female on the line in a shipyard, and rather than go to the bathroom there she would not drink all day.
    4. Maybe these were just a handful of deaths, maybe only 2 or 3 women in the same company who all adopted the same strategy.
    5. Given the rape problems in the U.S. military, the story doesn’t strike me as implausible.

  9. belledame222 says:

    I still remember the stories of the (first) woman who fought to get into the Citadel, the horrific hazing. She dropped eventually (others who followed her didn’t, right?) The line defending the Citadel /male students was, roughly, “She got what she asked for. We treated her like all the other knobs. She couldn’t take it.”

    Which, one, I tend to doubt that there wasn’t a little something extra there, given the extreme hostility toward the very idea of a woman invading their hallowed space, and the leeway given during hazing in general. But even if it was: seriously, is hazing like that really defensible?

    Which I guess brings up the larger question of whether the military itself is defensible, but assuming you take the position that we need the military, or at least it isn’t going away: do you need the hazing and so on to make it work? Serious question. Certainly it seems obvious that you don’t need the sexism, or the homophobia, or the sex-phobia in general, fears of contaminating precious bodily fluids notwithstanding: the Spartans seemed to make the combination of more-than-brotherly-love and aggression work for them, anyway. And I know the army in Israel, at least, is co-ed, has been for longer than in the U.S. and to a greater extent (men *and* women required to serve), although admittedly I don’t know much about how that actually plays out in terms of gender attitudes and so on.

  10. belledame222 says:

    >If they were so infantile or undisciplined or degenerate that they couldn’t do their jobs when faced with a female or non-straight male, then throw them out of the service. Let’s have an army made up of people who can perform their duties regardless – all women and all gay men, if necessary. That’s it! An army of women and gays!

    This has always seemed like the most logical response to any argument along the lines of “women are a tempTAtion and lead men astray.” Dude, basically you’re saying you’re the one who’s fragile and needs protection; maybe *you* should swaddle yourself in yards of fabric and stay home. Eat bonbons, have a good cry in front of the soaps, stop worrying your head about so many things, you know. Seems like ultimately that’s what you really want…

  11. Violet Socks says:

    The Vatican reached some kind of bizarro zenith in woman-blaming when they placed the blame for male homosexuality on women. This after the Church had spent centuries blaming male heterosexual excess on women.

    On war and rape: I remember reading Against Our Will when I was a kid, and being horrified to the very core of my being to realize that women’s bodies had always been part of the battlefield in war. War = rape. Always, always, always. It seems to me that the old equation is still in place in the U.S. military, even though the women are soldiers too.

    belledame222, I too have always been curious about how things play out in the Israeli army.

  12. Alon Levy says:

    In the Israeli army, sexual harassment by male officers of female clerks is so common that the joke goes that military service for men is about “killing Arabs and fucking female clerks.” Although men and women start out in almost equal numbers, the male-to-female ratio increases with rank, so there are very, very few female Generals.

    Now, as Karpinski claims the problem occurred at Abu-Gharib, it’s likely that all or almost all troops in question were combat-trained. Even if they weren’t in a combat role, they had been given all the necessary training. Majikthise’s comment thread has more specific claims.

  13. Raven says:

    Being in the military, I could write a very long reply.. But I think this link does it better than I ever could.

    “In the 20th century, 90 percent of all war deaths were unarmed women, children, and men.”

    You honestly believe that of all the casualties during the 20th century, for every combatant killed 9 non-combatants were killed? And are you referring to offical, declared wars, or civil wars, or ethnic cleansings? Are you including casualties due to disease, famine, or non-fatal casualties? Do accidents, such as the Halifax explosion during WWI, count towards civilian casualties? What about criminals executed post-war, or people who later died of war related injuries? Seems like a lot of grey area to make such a bold statement.

  14. Violet Socks says:

    It’s not a matter of belief, it’s a matter of basic statistics that are no more controversial than population figures from the CIA Factbook. Do a little research, for chrissake.

    And you can take your right-wing, pro-torture, pro-Bush, anti-woman link and stick it in your Gatorade bottle.